Kentucky Gardens: Composting and Community
At the end of June, I had the opportunity to visit Kentucky Gardens for a composting workshop. The organizers were Rachel Toth of BugHub and Isaac Coblentz. The event was put together with less than a week’s notice; and because of this, attendance was a bit thin. So, the workshop ended up being a little light on composting and rather heavy on community, which seems appropriate for the second oldest community garden in Cleveland.
Kentucky Gardens is nestled between W 38th and W 32nd, just south of Franklin Avenue. It has been a community garden since the Great Depression with the official opening as a garden in 1934. However, the land Kentucky Gardens sit on has been a historical part of Cleveland’s modern history going back as far as 1856. At that time, it was home to Cleveland’s first reservoir and pumping station. It covered six acres and held six million gallons of drinking water. In the 1880’s, Cleveland outgrew the reservoir. Eventually, the land was levelled and became a park; and eventually that park became a community garden. If you’re wondering where the name Kentucky Gardens came from, then you’re in good company because I had no idea either. The street now known as W 38th was formally known as Kentucky Street. Presently, the site is home to 155 plots and approximately 133 gardeners.
So on Friday June 29th, I made my first visit to Kentucky Gardens, which honestly had been a long time coming, as I’ve heard of Kentucky Gardens as far back as 2010. Upon my arrival, I was met with a beautiful gate entrance that immediately made me feel like I was somewhere special. Compost Hostess, Rachel Toth welcomed me with enthusiasm. As I was the first one there, she offered me a tour. The first thing I noticed was a giant 20’X20’ plot of garlic, the outline of which you can see in the picture above on the left hand side. When I asked about it, Rachel informed me that it was for the community. This was an answer that I repeatedly heard while I was at Kentucky Gardens.
Eventually, we found our way to Rachel’s plots. For the most part, all of them were mulched, which as a Soil & Water Conservation guy made me happy. It is here where I saw an incredibly unique and innovative form of composting (see pic above). It began with a hugelkultur bed at its base. For those unaware, a hugelkultur bed is a centuries old Germanic raised bed technique that permaculturists have co-opted as their own in recent years. The base of the bed is branches, and those branches are simply covered with soil. The branches of differing widths and lengths also decompose at different rates; thereby offering an ongoing supply of nutrients and opening up new air pockets for roots to grow. They tend to last for years without the need for fertilizers.
Though the hugelkultur bed in and of itself is a means of composting, the real innovation came from what Rachel put on top of and in the middle of the bed. This was another composter! It was held together with fencing with a burlap coffee sack inside of it. Basically, weedy plant debris went into this additional composter and fed the pile from the top down; whereas, the hugel bed fed the soil from the bottom up. This entire bed was then fenced off and planted with tomatoes that used the fencing for support. I was impressed with the vertical usage of space. This seemed perfect for backyard-scale growers.
Just a few steps later, we stumbled upon a 30 foot row of something big and leafy that I recognized as comfrey. Comfrey is extremely popular in permaculture circles for its ability to send a taproot far down into the subsoils to mine for nutrients, which it collects in its leaves. From there, the plant gets almost completed hacked down, and its leaves are used for a slow-release mulch/compost in a process lovingly called “chop and drop.” The comfrey is able to regenerate itself and withstand this hacking multiple times a year.
From Rachel’s plot, we moseyed on over to the most organized toolshed that I’ve ever seen. Inside, I met her partner-in-compost, Isaac Coblentz, who was just finishing off a batch of aerated compost tea. Aerated compost tea is a lot like it sounds. Finished compost from a pile is put into a bucket or barrel and filled with de-chlorinated water. The water needs to be de-chlorinated so that the chlorine does not kill the micro-organisms that you are intending to grow. From there, a carbohydrate source is added. Frequently, unsulfured molasses is used; however, Rachel and Isaac like to use rice. Lastly, an oxygen source is added. Aquarium bubblers are popular for this task, but Isaac made his own contraption. The tea can steep overnight and up to several days. The ultimate goal is to grow out beneficial micro-organisms and apply them to the soil as a soil drench to increase soil biology.
After the visit to the toolshed, I was taken to a picnic table with a slew of composting books and a plastic container with one and two year old compost. This is where Rachel’s knowledge and interest really shined. As owner of Bug Hub, she is a huge proponent of beneficial insects and creating habitat for them. She was outwardly excited in pointing out and describing the different insects on the one versus two year old compost. This is something that honestly I would have overlooked had she not pointed it out. Once she did however, it was easy to see.
About this time, a couple other folks made their way into Kentucky Gardens. One was an older timer from Italy with a lot of spirit, named Vincenzo DeSienna. The other was Michael Mishaga, who had been growing at Kentucky Gardens for 20 years though you couldn’t tell it from his looks. With 20 years of experience at Kentucky, Michael plays the role of modern day historian and coordinates a lot of the community outreach through the Metanoia Project and United Through People.
With all that being said, I was admittedly pretty excited to meet the older timer, Vincenzo, as he was the keeper of the fig trees in Kentucky Gardens. Michael served as an interpreter for my interactions with Vincenzo, who gave me a cursory introduction to fig propagation with a bunch of hand signals and whistle sounds. Overwintering figs in our Cleveland climate is always an issue, but Vincenzo had been doing it for years with aplomb. We agreed for me to comeback in the fall to make an instructional video on exactly how Vincenzo does it.
When I left Kentucky Gardens, I felt both energized and concerned. The energy came from a place in me where I saw and felt a bunch of great work being done in a historic Cleveland green space. The concern came from a place of fearing development and new homogenized townhomes. The near Westside has become increasingly hip and expensive. Developers love a property where they don’t have to tear anything down. Let’s hope it never comes to that. In the meantime, I encourage them to get an easement on the property.